September 25, 2023

Of Artemis and Amazons

This appeared in today’s Hindustan Times Cafe as ‘All the world’s a stage’

Of Artemis and Amazons

Elton John has performed there, St. John the Baptist is believed to have preached there. Fittingly, my defining moment at Ephesus too was at the amphitheatre – as I sat on one of the lower steps gazing at the empty space all around. I could see the highway snaking in the distance and the brown hills far beyond. The amphitheatre was magnificent, in its time capable of seating 24000 people, and I sat there savouring the moment of silence. Just then, a large tour group walked in with a guide in the lead. Italian, I thought, judging by the cheery loud voices and the purposeful hand gestures. I sighed, mentally saying goodbye to the sense of peace I had experienced at Ephesus so far.

And suddenly the group broke into song; they organized themselves into a semi-circle and began singing choir music. No mikes, no wires, nothing but the unplugged voices of a dozen adults enjoying the acoustics. I walked further up the steps and the voices followed me just as clearly as if I had sat next to them. A small crowd had gathered by then drawn by the music and we all sat in companionable silence, applauding lustily at the end of each song at a site where gladiators once fought bloody battles.

Imagine the acoustics...

This experience was all the more special since it was so against everything I had expected. I had read somewhere that after the Sultanahmet area in Istanbul where all the ‘hot’ tourist spots are located, the site of Ephesus was the most visited destination in Turkey. A friend in Istanbul had described the loud tour groups herded by their louder Japanese and German speaking guides and so I had approached Ephesus with some trepidation, visions of Babel floating in my head.

There are many stories about the origins of Ephesus, known locally as Efes. My favourite is the one that claims that Ephesus was founded by a clan of female warriors known as the Amazons. The name of the city is thought to have been derived from ‘Ephos’, the name of the queen of the Amazon. The female warrior theme also fits in with the history of Ephesus as a place that worshipped Artemis or Diana as the mother goddess (and also the goddess of fertility).

Of Artemis and Amazons

Built in 550 B.C, the Temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. To paraphrase Antipater of Sidon, who compiled the list of seven wonders, the sun had never shone on anything as grand. My local guide, the friendly Mr. Nisanyan, owner of the little hill inn I was staying in, was a sad man as he recounted the story of the temple of Artemis; nothing remains of it now. It was destroyed by invaders and the pillars carried over to support part of St John’s Basilica just behind the site. A few centuries later, the Basilica was looted, and legend has it that some of the pillars that now stand inside the Isabey mosque between the two monuments are originally from the temple of Artemis. Sevan Nisanyan then shook his head with a wry smile and said, recycling, that is what it is all about.

It was a bright and sunny autumn morning when I reached the Artemis temple, or the lonesome defiant pillar which marks the centre of the area where the temple once existed. It was empty, but for a few locals offering to sell “genuine antique coins” at an unbelievable bargain price. And from where I stood, in front of the diagram showing the temple as it was in its days of glory, I could see the mosque just behind it and the Basilica on the low hill beyond that. Recycling; some people may call it religion.

Temple of Artemis

Statue of Artemis

There are grand plans to build a replica of the temple at Selcuk (pronounced Selshuk) for use as a cultural centre close to the original Artemis ruins but nothing has come of it so far. With a last look at the forlorn marble pillar, we then headed to Ephesus, just over three kilometres away. Mr. Nisanyan had suggested that we get off the car at the upper gate of Ephesus and make our way down, an easy walk.

Our driver took one look at us, and deciding that we needed the exercise dropped us at the lower gate, forcing us to trek all the way up to where he awaited us at the other entrance.

Down the road from the amphitheatre is a highly recommended stop on the tour that convinced me that Ephesians indeed worshipped women. If not strictly as mother goddesses, then certainly in other forms; I was at the Brothel. For the directionally challenged, there is even a foot print (ancient, I was assured) engraved in the marble stone, pointing towards it. The breathless voice on my audio tour guide informed me that the women of the Brothel were not just beautiful but highly intellectual and influential. These women enjoyed privileges not allowed to the ordinary Ephesian woman, such as owning houses and voting in elections, and also had the right to choose and reject their customers. All hail woman power!

Arete, goddess of virtue

Breaks my heart to see a library in ruins...

The Brothel ironically sits right in front of what must be the most magnificent of the buildings inside Ephesus, the Celsus Library. At its peak, this library held between 12000 – 15000 scrolls and was rivalled only by the one at Alexandria. One look at it and I cursed my mulish driver once again for having dropped me off at the lower gate. For someone walking down the hill, the Library is always directly in view and if wide marble roads do not lead to it as once they must have, the building is still beautiful enough to make the tired tourist forget the heat and dust of modern day Turkey. Ephesus is considered one of the largest and best preserved classical cities in the world, although it is understood that only 15% of the site has been excavated till date.

Hadrian's Temple


I am again thinking about woman power now as I read recently in the news that a resident skeleton of Ephesus has finally been identified as Cleopatra’s half-sister Arsinoe. It is believed that she was murdered by Cleopatra’s lover Mark Antony on her orders. My image of Cleopatra unfortunately is that of a charming queen with a pretty face and prettier nose, formed entirely through early and repeated readings of the comic-book Asterix and Cleopatra. And I find it difficult to reconcile that picture with this of a woman ruthless enough to eliminate any competition. Woman power, I guess, takes many forms.

Travel information

Getting there : The easiest way is to fly in to Izmir, the third largest city in Turkey – from Izmir to Selcuk is just over an hour’s drive. Turkish Airlines has flights from Istanbul and Ankara almost every hour and the round trip starts from Rs.5000/. You need a Turkish visa for Ephesus, which can be obtained from the Embassy in New Delhi.

Stay : Selcuk is an ideal base to explore the region and has several clean and cheap guesthouses. Or stay up the hill in Sirince at Nisanyan, for the views and the experience ( The owners Sevan and Mujde Nisanyan are authors of the ‘Little Hotel Book’, a guide to small hotels in Turkey, and Mr. Nisanyan is a fascinating source of stories about the country.

Shop : Buy the ‘genuine antique coins’ if you must; I would recommend a small statue of Artemis or the Virgin Mary as a better souvenir. You can also buy beautiful Turkish pottery from the shops near the Ephesus site or Selcuk. In Sirince, definitely pick up the local fruit wine that comes in several flavours.

See : Do visit the Basilica at Selcuk – it contains the tomb of St John the Baptist, who it is believed, fled to Ephesus with Mary, as directed by a dying Jesus. And further up the hill from Ephesus is also the home where the Virgin Mary is supposed to have stayed, now called Meryamana. Also stop at the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers on the way up to the Ephesus site and read up the fascinating story beforehand.

(This is the piece in its original form, as I had sent it – the final edited version in print feels a little disjointed)

5 thoughts on “Of Artemis and Amazons

  1. Nice post. Interesting information about a place I hardly knew about.
    Turkey is the one country that I always wanted to go, but never did.

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